Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney won Iowa's presidential caucus vote Tuesday by just eight votes, barely holding off a challenge that came late in the race from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
"This is a campaign night where America wins," Romney said before the results were final.
Romney addressed supporters gathered at a historic hotel in downtown Des Moines shortly before midnight and congratulated Santorum on a "great victory for him and for his effort in Iowa. We also feel it's been a great victory for us here."
Santorum and Romney traded the lead throughout the evening in the presidential preference poll taken at GOP caucuses statewide. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, was a close third.
Romney headed to New Hampshire Wednesday, where he has held a sizable lead going into the Jan. 10 primary. He is expected to be endorsed today by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who beat Romney in the race for the 2008 GOP nomination.
His campaign announced he also has stops planned in South Carolina later this week and is starting to air commercials in Florida, the next states up after New Hampshire.
The race in Iowa has long been unsettled, with the lead shifting repeatedly. Both Santorum and Paul only recently surfaced as serious contenders and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished fourth, had been a front-runner until about a week ago.
Many voters appear to have been searching for an alternative to Romney, who was seen as the presumptive front-runner going into the 2012 race.
Romney's campaign had tried to temper expectations for Iowa after his 2008 loss there to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee was supported by many of the same evangelical Christian voters who backed Santorum on Tuesday.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz said Romney's near-tie was still a "big victory."
Chaffetz, who traveled with Romney in his final campaign swing through Iowa, said the candidate was "all smiles upstairs. The game plan was to just finish in the top three."
He said Romney spent less than $2 million compared to more than $10 million in 2008, campaigning just 18 days in the state compared to more than 100 days four years ago.
Investing more resources in Iowa, the congressman said, wouldn’t have made a difference.
"He played it perfectly. I don't think they would have changed anything," Chaffetz said. "They did it just the way they wanted to do it."
Still, the one-time campaign manager acknowledged, "You always want to win. You want to win by as much as you can." Chaffetz ran the first gubernatorial campaign of the other presidential candidate in the race with Utah ties, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Huntsman skipped Iowa's caucuses, focusing his campaign resources on the next election in the 2012 presidential primary race, New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary.
Romney sounded confident at an early morning rally in downtown Des Moines, his only public appearance Tuesday, but stopped short there of predicting a victory in Iowa.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who attended the rally, told the Deseret News then that a top-three finish in Iowa would be a strong enough showing for Romney.
"Yes," the nationally known pollster said. "Because he's going to win big in New Hampshire."
Top Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters after the rally, "No matter where he finishes tonight, I think he's going to come out of here with a big surge of energy. And I think people see in him a winning candidate."
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